I just went through Statistics South Africa’s Quarterly Labour Force Survey data for the third quarter of 2019. The primary agricultural numbers were a pleasant surprise, showing a 4.5% y/y uptick to 880 000. I say “surprise” because the third quarter of each year is usually a quiet period on farms in most parts of South Africa.

These jobs gains were mainly in the livestock, horticulture, field crops, as well as aquaculture subsector. I think this could have largely been underpinned by the replanting in parts of the horticulture fields following a drought season that caused damage in the fields in provinces such as the Western and Eastern Cape. Other provinces that showed job gains are KwaZulu-Natal, Gauteng and Mpumalanga. Meanwhile, the Northern Cape, Free State, North West and Limpopo saw a reduction in agricultural employment.

The question I have received thus far from people was whether this optimism will hold given the current drier weather conditions?

One thing to point out is that while it is currently dry across the country and summer crop plantings have been delayed somewhat, there are prospects for favourable weather conditions in the near -term, which should support agricultural activity and subsequent employment. The South African Weather Service forecasts above-normal rainfall between November 2019 and January 2020. Be that as it may, a recovery in weather conditions alone might not lead to notable job creation in agriculture that far outpaces the trends we have witnessed over the past few years, hovering around 850 000 jobs.

The broader policy questions should be: how to ensure that South Africa’s agriculture sector delivers to the promise of job creation?

This will require a combination of factors. These include a boost in agricultural productivity, an improvement in the rural investment climate, expansion of export markets, promotion of labour-intensive agriculture subsectors, and expansion of area farmed where possible.

Also, the underutilised land in the former homelands and some land reform farms will also need to be revitalised to see an increase in employment. As my colleagues and I at Agbiz, have consistently pointed out, the provinces containing former homelands that still have tracts of underutilised, arable land that can be prioritised for agricultural expansion are KwaZulu-Natal, the Eastern Cape and Limpopo. These provinces collectively have between 1.6 million to 1.8 million hectares of underutilised land, according to a 2015 study by McKinsey Global Institute.

Follow me on Twitter (@WandileSihlobo). E-mail: wandile@agbiz.co.za

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